Reader Romain Speisser has shared a guest post today on the history of the Amish in his region of Alsace in France. Romain writes about the “Heftler” people and some of the significant figures of the area – as well as one important oak tree over two centuries old. I share with you Romain’s post below, along with some photos, all taken by Romain.

For some additional information, Amish historian David Luthy writes about Amish origins, discussing both the Amish and their spiritual forebears the Swiss Brethren, including a mention of Salm.


The Hamlet of Salm

It is in the hamlet of Salm that there were emblematic figures of the Anabaptist movement. In Salm, as in most of Alsace, it was Jacob Amann’s rigorous ideas that dominated. Like many lords, the princes of Salm welcomed on their lands the Anabaptists, known for their hard work and their honesty.

Our Amish in Alsace were later known as “Heftler” in reference to the staples they wore instead of buttons. In addition, Mennonite churches in Holland kept an eye on these rustic and closed-looking “brothers” by sending observers to report on their actions. Today, there are still farms in the Glade of Salm, formerly owned by Heftler families, and a cemetery.

Salm farm (All photos by Romain Speisser)

The largest of these houses was inhabited by the Minister and Elder Jacob Kupferschmitt, born around 1723. Before 1792 and since civil status was not compulsory, the Heftlers were very difficult to trace because the registers were kept only by Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors. Our local Amish also tried to evade these acts as much as possible, just to leave no trace.

In 1793, Jacob greatly contributed to the fact that the Heftlers were not engaged in armed service by the French government in place, but once Napoleon came to power, this privilege was taken away from them.

The cemetery of Salm and some of its Amish tombs. The graves are marked with a heart. The first lower right is that of Jacob Kupferschmitt. The two tombs behind in white sandstone are those of Nicolas and Madeleine Augsburger.

One family, the Augsburgers, were very prolific in offspring and this name is found in generation after generation. Part of the Augsburger family left Alsace to settle in Ohio at Milford Township, then at Madison Township, where they were involved in the leadership of the Amish of this state.

Peterschmitt/Gerber/Augsburger farm seen from the road

Let’s look at Nicolas Augsburger, who moved to the Salm. He too became Minister and Elder in this part of Alsace. He reigned there as a patriarch recognized and respected. His great knowledge of medicinal plants and his success in business made him known in all the surrounding areas.

In 1860, an author by the name of Alfred Michiels put Nicolas first in one of his books “Les anabaptistes des Vosges” where he retraced the meetings he had with the patriarch. Michiels detailed the way of life and the beliefs of the Alsatian Amish. This book can be read online, but only in French, at gallica.bnf.fr.

Peterschmitt/Gerber/Augsburger farm, rear view

Following a bad fall on the stairs of his cellar, Nicolas died in 1890. The national press mentioned the death of Nicolas, and a large number of people – even non-Anabaptist – attended his burial, as his qualities were recognized.


Nicolas Augsburger’s grave

Salm became a very high place of Anabaptism in Alsace. Being from this family and owner of the large Salm Farm, automatically meant being the patriarch of the country. Most of the services during worship once every two weeks or once a month took place in this house for the local Anabaptist inhabitants.

An oak was planted in 1793 to commemorate exemption from national service. This oak is still standing today, and is more than two hundred years old.

Acorns from this oak were recovered from under the tree and taken to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio, where descendants of the tree that Jacob Kupferschmitt planted are now growing.


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